One Germany, no momentum

Five years after unification, inertia is undermining the nation's future, says Thomas Kielinger
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Look up that great treasure trove of a reference book, the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, second edition of 1987, and what do you find under the entry "Germany"? "A former country in central Europe ..." Well, those were the days. Germany has since come back with a vengeance, from the sunken Atlantis of Continental Europe to, well, exactly what?

There lies the rub. Five years precisely into its newly acquired unity, Germany seems like a country still unable to define what is happening to it within and without. This is not really astonishing considering the traumatic event in 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall, with its chaotic consequences.

Even today, the citizensappear to be in a daze. They do all the things you would expect a country to do in order to rise to a unique challenge of its history. And yet there is still this air of strangeness permeating Germany's national conduct.

The two Germanies remain wide apart, almost aloof from one another - the legacy of 40 years of division. Which makes it all the more astonishing how stoically the country has accepted the huge burden of capital resources going into reconstructing the devastated eastern part, all of one trillion German marks to date.

Call it resigned churlishness, the gritting of one's teeth in the face of the inevitable; but not much of national enthusiasm is left after the helter-skelter of this century. The joyous excitement of the unity year 1990 was very short-lived indeed. We have arrived, as it were, at the deadpan phase of rebuilding our sense of being, a far cry from the nationalistic frenzy of pre-1945 Germany.

Good riddance, I say. Give me the sullen Germany of today any time, as against some of her previous emanations. Anyway, for the road ahead one has to use different yardsticks. The real question about Germany lies not in her past but in her future. I sense at the heart of contemporary Germany a striking aversion to change, which has its roots perhaps in the very turbulence so characteristic of the 20th century and Germany's role in it. The tremendous effort made to rebuild the divided nation belies a deeply embedded historical fatigue.

It would be ideal if the spirit of sacrifice so evident in the business of reconstruction now carried over into a general sense of anticipation about the future. But that is not so. Slowly, ever so slowly, is Germany awakening to the dangers inherent in its over-regulated and inflexible structures. It is a pity 1989/90 was not used more resolutely as a golden opportunity to try out new ways to turn the Germans' singular aptitude for meticulousness into a more imaginative and novel approach.

Instead, the entire west German system of saturation-level state entitlements, and its built-in abhorrence towards doing anything differently, was implanted in the east, lock, stock and barrel. I cannot bear to think of the colossal input of capital resources going into reconstruction and then compare this amount with the real return in terms of innovation and competitiveness.

What a historical moment missed! Yes, we are rebuilding the infrastructure, we are making people's pensions safe (or trying to), we are cushioning the effects of huge unemployment by supporting generously those out of work (without finding new jobs for them, though), we are fast equalising wages (irrespective of productivity levels).

But all the king's capital and all the king's men cannot make Germany competitive again. At least not as long as some of the key players, such as the unions or the state benefits lobby, refuse to yield even a millimetre of their established bridgeheads. This, after all, is the country that cannot even get itself to liberate commerce from the regime of stifling shop-opening hours.

To be sure, on the surface this still-prosperous society would hardly bear out so much scepticism. But too many German businesses are winding down parts of their operations, shutting plants only to relocate them in more affordable markets and countries. A lot of research and development in genetics, for example, beleaguered by an over-moralising, over-weaning legislature, is seeking a more compatible environment in which to work, away from Germany.

Unifying the country in mind and spirit will take a whole generation. But that is not our main problem now. Instead, Germany must make sure the cartel of inertia and aversion to change does not become the hallmark of "Germany United". In that case, the country might still be playing in the big league but with diminishing chances of ending among the top teams.

The writer is a senior political analyst living in Bonn.

Miles Kington is on holiday.